My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shakespearean chronology is not an exact science, but most sources I’ve consulted in print and online agree that among the major tragedies Othello comes after Hamlet (and the problem plays) but before King Lear and Macbeth. This allows us a doubled understanding (“By Janus,” the two-faced Iago swears) of this troubling tragedy’s significance. On the one hand, Othello warns of the danger to human community posed by the limitlessly critical intellect first unleashed in Hamlet, a play that invites us, or rather seduces us, to sympathize with this antiheroic disposition, even if the antihero himself renounces just before the end. On the other hand, Othello is a demonically antic revel staged by the same critical intellect we were just disparaging, a prelude to those two infernal tragedies, Lear and Macbeth, governed as they are almost entirely by a nihilist night in which only flashes of compassion and humanity faintly glimmer. “Chaos is come again,” laments Othello in an unconscious recognition of the general collapse his own particular fall portends.
In the first reading posited above, Othello merits his titular designation as the drama’s hero. His first speech in the second scene, to an already conniving Iago, displays a martial dignity, a noble indifference to insult based on a just sense both of merit and descent:
Let him do his spite:
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. ‘Tis yet to know,—
Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,
I shall promulgate—I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reach’d…
The “fortune” this Venetian general from abroad has reached is marriage, albeit by secret elopement, to a senator’s daughter. His unwitting appeal to Desdemona was the very difference that her father overlooks in a military officer but denigrates in a son-in-law, as Othello explains to the Duke of Venice (who is in any case more worried about an imminent Turkish attack than a domestic dispute):
Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,—such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse: which I observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively: I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer’d. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This monologue-as-miniature-epic belies Othello’s earlier apology to the Duke, “Rude am I in my speech, / And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace.” Its litany of adventures passed in the “pilgrimage” of war, studded with romantic imagery, makes the strange beautiful and beguiling. And not inertly beautiful, not merely “exotic,” as our contemporary scourges of Orientalism would complain, but attractive, a literal appeal to movement and change in the domestic temperament. Desdemona says, “my heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord,” where “subdued” means less “tamed” than “submerged,” and that she cannot therefore continue as a “moth of peace” but join him in his wars. When they reunite in Cyprus, after nature has in the form of a storm dispatched the threatened Turkish invasion, he hails her, “O my fair warrior!”
In their match, difference has been breached, not to become abstract similitude but complementary metamorphosis: he has become a domestic poet, she a venturesome soldier. Unlike in the other tragedies, nature is on their side; it dispels the threat of war with a tempest that preserves rather than upending the social order. This order itself, with little resistance, permits and even encourages Othello and Desdemona’s apotheosis. As G. Wilson Knight observes in his essay, “The Othello Music” (in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy), the play stages a contest between two styles of language. First, which we’ve already sampled, is the titular music, Othello’s own poetry, a speech less demotic and more stable than that of any of the major tragic heroes:
Yet the dominant quality in this play is the exquisitely moulded language, the noble cadence and chiselled phrase, of Othello’s poetry. Othello’s speech, therefore, reflects not a soldier’s language, but the quality of soldiership in all its glamour of romantic adventure; it holds an imaginative realism. It has a certain exotic beauty, is a storied and romantic treasure-house of rich, colourful experiences.
Shakespeare sets this edifice up to undermine it with Iago’s anti-poetic language, a running vein of obscenity—we hear it in the first scene, before we hear Othello—with which he later taints our hero himself. Shouting in the street, in the dark, he wakes Desdemona’s father:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe.
I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
Where for Othello and Desdemona difference attracts and transforms, for Iago it is only an affront. He is, he says, “nothing if not critical.” Shakespeare famously altered his source, an Italian story by Giraldi Cinthio in which the Iago character suffers a spurned love of Desdemona that incites his betrayal of Othello. While the symmetry in this version of the narrative is neat enough—a jealous lover vengefully inspires false jealousy in his rival—it’s not nearly as revolutionary as Shakespeare’s creation.
Slavoj Žižek somewhere remarked that Shakespeare obviously read Lacan; likewise, in Othello we find the playwright’s gloss on Nietzsche, for Iago is not merely a jealous lover but the full-fledged man of ressentiment. True, he suspects both Othello and Cassio of sleeping with his own wife, and he says that he hates Othello because the general promoted Cassio over him, but these are only manifestations of his general sickness of soul. Because he hates whatever is superior to him—not only socially superior but also stronger and more beautiful—he must spy out its faults or even create them. Like Hamlet, but without Hamlet’s legitimate grievance, Iago sees the world as an “unweeded garden,” a place of hidden cankers and inward imposthumes at the bursting point. Of the grandiloquent bon vivant Cassio, he says, in perhaps his most telling lines, “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.” He is the opposite of Desdemona, who is inspired by the different and the beautiful to change her life; he instead annihilates it, all of it, the different, the beautiful, her life, and his own. He revenges himself on the world by infecting its inhabitants with his own illness, to make his hapless friend Roderigo no less than his commanding officer into cynics who see filth wherever they look, which is why the highly poetic Othello begins to speak in his filthy language, as Knight also observes:
Iago works at the foundations of human values. […] So he ruins both Othello’s love and warrior-heart. He makes him absurd, ugly. Toward the end of the play there is hideous suggestion. We hear of ‘cords, knives, poison’ (III. iii. 389), of lovers ‘as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys’ (III. iii. 404); we meet Bianca, the whore, told by Cassio to ‘throw her vile guesses in the Devil’s teeth’ (III. iv. 183); there are Othello’s incoherent mutterings, ‘Pish! Noses, ears and lips!’ (iv. i. 43), he will ‘chop’ Desdemona ‘into messes’ (IV. i. 210); she reminds him of ‘foul toads’ (IV. ii. 60). […] In all these phrases I would emphasize not the sense and dramatic relevance alone, but the suggestion the accumulative effect of ugliness, hellishness, idiocy, negation. It is a formless, colourless essence, insidiously undermining a world of concrete, visual, richly-toned forms. That is the Iago-spirit embattled against the domesticity, the romance, the idealized humanity of the Othello world. […] Iago would make discord of the Othello music.
A parable, then: society is a fragile artifice gently contrived by the poetry of blended contrasts, and whatever peace may be achieved across boundaries of difference—between men and women, among people of different lands and lineages—will be spoiled if too free a license is granted the critical intellect, with its disembodied proclivity to find fault in all extant beauty.
But Shakespeare doesn’t write parables; such a reading is too easy. Take only the initial context of this drama as theatrical entertainment in the age of bear-baiting, and we’ll see that Iago is the main pole of attraction. He conspires in his speeches and asides to the audience in the making of the hellishly entertaining revel. We can’t overlook the drama’s dark, cynical comedy as its master of situations easily fuddles the stiffly sincere heroes into a series of escalating pratfalls that probably incited a startled laughter in the crowd. Our playwright was not the author of humanistic tracts, but of popular entertainment for a not-always humanistic populace, and this sensational production, with its maddened Moor and set-piece domestic homicide, borrows its style of ludic unpleasantness from the sensibility of its villain.
The immediate context can only explain so much, though, so we should consider Iago in a wider perspective. Don’t we find him, again like Hamlet, to be one of the first moderns—isn’t he one of us? He is a mobile intellect without faith, a materialist who counsels duplicity for the sake of power and a wholly disenchanted view of sex, love, and nature, even as he takes pleasure in his own will to power. He tells Roderigo:
Virtue! a fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion.
Inert nature mastered by will: this is the modern temperament, to which Iago adds the modern counsel, “Put money in thy purse,” after which he tells Roderigo that ruining Othello will be for him only a “sport”—art for art’s sake. Combining scientism, capitalism, and aestheticism, Iago augurs our world, and is therefore not so easily dismissed. In the tragedies that follow this one, his worldview rules the world, as Lear and Macbeth wander through a blasted landscape; only glimpses of honor and compassion, as in the griefs of Lear and Macduff, light their nightmare darkness. Desdemona plays a similar role here in her doomed, lyrical innocence, singing, “Willow, willow, willow.”
I would like to end, however, with the observation that Shakespeare frustrates any simple parabolic dichotomy between criticism and poetry, between cynicism and civilization, not only though the inadvertent appeal of Iago’s modernity, but through the complex character of Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, Emilia. She seems a good match for her husband even on her first appearance; she replies with arch understatement to his misogyny (“You shall not write my praise”) seeming to meet his cynicism with her own. In her later conversation with Desdemona, she defends errant wives:
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
This is critical, but not cynical, not Iago-like. It is based on “common sense” in that phrase’s original meaning of a consensus arrived at through shared experience. All people have needs and weaknesses, and therefore will behave for good or ill in whatever circumstances create incentives for evil or good. Here is an intellect that can conceptualize and defend the poetry of love and difference sung by Othello and Desdemona in the play’s opening. Emilia unsurprisingly does defend it: she performs the play’s only real heroic onstage deed when she refuses to be silenced (“I will speak as liberal as the north”) and reveals her husband’s perfidy to Othello and the authorities assembled at Desdemona’s deathbed. If Iago is the critical spirit as producer of discord from harmony, Emilia exhibits by contrast the intelligence necessary to create the concord that sounds in the poetry of Othello and Desdemona’s love.